Thursday, April 27th, 2006
In a Democracy Now! broadcast exclusive we are joined by two figures who played central roles in the fall of President Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal of a generation ago, John Dean and Daniel Ellsberg. Dean served as President Nixon's chief counsel. He exposed the government-sanctioned break-in of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, the government analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers and earned himself a spot on Nixon's enemy list. Dean and Ellsberg join us in our firehouse studio to discuss Watergate and the abuse of presidential power from Nixon to Bush. [includes rush transcript
Today in a broadcast exclusive we are joined by two figures who played central roles in the fall of President Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal of a generation ago. One of our guests, John Dean, served as President Nixon's chief counsel. The other, Daniel Ellsberg, was a government analyst who earned himself a spot on Nixon's enemy list.
It was Daniel Ellsberg who leaked to the press what became known as the Pentagon Papers -- a 7,000 page classified history outlining the true extent of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. 35 years ago this June the New York Times began publishing excerpts of the leaked documents.
The Nixon administration immediately moved to block the Times from publishing the papers but the Supreme Court eventually sided with the Times in a landmark case.
On June 28, 1971, Ellsberg surrendered to face charges of espionage. Henry Kissinger would go on to describe him as "the world's most dangerous man" and the Nixon administration made attempts to ruin his life going so far as breaking into his psychiatrist's office with the hope of uncovering incriminating information.
Meanwhile John Dean was on the inside of the Nixon administration. He served as White House counsel for 1,000 days of the Nixon presidency.
He was among the White House staffers implicated in covering up the break-in of the Democratic National Headquarters inside the Watergate Hotel in 1972.
Dean agreed to testify to Congress that Nixon was guilty of covering up Watergate, even though he was certain to condemn himself. Dean was eventually charged with obstruction of justice and would eventually be sentenced to 127 days in detention for taking part in the cover-up.
Today Dean has become a vocal critic of the Bush administration. His most recent book is called "Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush." Daniel Ellsberg remains an advocate for greater openness in government and has supported other government whistleblowers. They both join us today in our Firehouse studio.
John Dean, served as counsel to President Nixon. He is the author of several books including "Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush."
Daniel Ellsberg, in October of 1969 he began smuggling out of his office and xeroxing the 7,000 page top-secret study of U.S. decision making in Vietnam, known as the Pentagon Papers. He did so with the intent of revealing these secrets to Congress and the American public and in so doing, he set in motion actions that would eventually topple the Nixon presidency and end the Vietnam War. Author of "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers." He was once described by Henry Kissinger as "the world's most dangerous man."
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AMY GOODMAN: Today, John Dean has become a vocal critic of the Bush Administration. His most recent book is called Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush. Daniel Ellsberg remains an advocate for greater openness in government and supported other government whistleblowers. They both join us in the Firehouse studio today. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! So, it was 33 years ago that you were in court, Dan Ellsberg. Explain what happened.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Well, we had been in court for four-and-a-half months at that point. A fairly boring trial. A lot of documents to go over for the press and [inaudible]. And on one morning, an announcement came in from the judge in the courtroom, a memo from Earl Silbert, the Watergate prosecutor, saying that burglars, on the orders of the White House, had broken into my former psychiatrist's office to get information on me. Well, this came from John Dean, though some ten days earlier, twelve days earlier, the President had sat on that information for that period of time, forbidding Peter -- the acting Attorney General to send it on to the judge.
But finally, they threatened to resign, because they would be involved in obstruction of justice if they didn't send it on. So when that announcement was read in court, it was quite electrifying. For once the reporters who had been stuck in Los Angeles, while their colleagues were doing exciting things on Watergate in Washington, envisioned headlines “Watergate Meets the Pentagon Papers Trial.” That was the headline they all wanted. And they dashed from their seats during the court for the payphones in the hall. It was just like the movie Front Page for the first time in the trial, and not the last time.
And three days later, Ehrlichman testified about the existence of the Plumbers, the -- supposedly to stop leaks, although another of their jobs was to leak what the President wanted out, classified information, just like Bush's selective leaking of the National Intelligence Estimate recently.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And John Ehrlichman then was --
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Ehrlichman was the domestic counsel, and Haldeman was his chief counsel. So Karl Rove kind of combines the jobs -- or until recently. So they -- three days later it was announced that they had been involved in this. And President Nixon that night announced the resignation of “two of the finest public servants I have ever known,” Haldeman and Ehrlichman -- and John Dean, who wasn’t included in those adjectives, and Richard Kleindienst, the acting Attorney General at that point. I lost several Attorney Generals, actually, in the course of that trial.
AMY GOODMAN: And you were on trial because?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: I was on trial on the same kinds of charges that are being brought up today for unauthorized possession of copies of documents relating to the national security. There are several such trials coming at us now. Mine was the first in our history, prosecution of someone for a leak. As a matter of fact, I was reminding a Yale man last night there is a statue of Nathan Hale outside Yale and outside C.I.A. headquarters, which is staffed with Yale people. Nathan Hale, our first spy. And I remember saying at Yale once that it occurred to me that I'm the first American prosecuted -- he was hanged -- for giving secrets to Americans.
AMY GOODMAN: You were a government official.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: I had been a government official. And I was now back at the Rand Corporation and consulting with the government, doing research on lessons from Vietnam. And I thought that the lessons in these 7,000 pages deserved to be known by the Senate, as well as by executive branch employees or contract employees. So I gave them to the Senate in 1969, and then to the newspapers in 1971, 35 years ago this year.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And John Dean, your recollection of your involvement and revelations about Dan Ellsberg’s situation?
JOHN DEAN: Let me correct just a minor point in the setup, where I’m involved in the Watergate break-in. I had no knowledge of the Watergate break-in.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: I meant to say “cover-up.”
JOHN DEAN: It was the cover-up, yes. And what was [inaudible] when we were covering up was what they had done to Dan Ellsberg, which had somewhat a color of national security. That was the way it was cast. In fact, I was forbidden to talk to anybody about what I knew about the Ellsberg break-in. At one point after I had told the President, when no one else seemed willing to tell him how serious this was, that there was a cancer on his presidency and he was going down fast, and I had hoped he would pound on the table and say, “Hey, we’ve got to stop this!” Instead, he asked me, “Well, how much is it going to cost?” I knew I hadn’t been persuasive that morning.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: To keep people quiet.
JOHN DEAN: But anyway, I had told him I was going to break rank. I wouldn’t lie for anybody. And one of the things I was carrying in my knowledge, of course, was about the break-in into Dan's psychiatrist's office, looking for information that could somehow discredit him.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the people who broke in, one of them was G. Gordon Liddy.
JOHN DEAN: G. Gordon Liddy.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: And Howard Hunt.
JOHN DEAN: E. Howard Hunt. And the same people who had --
AMY GOODMAN: G. Gordon Liddy, the radio commentator.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Yes.
JOHN DEAN: Of late. Of late.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: Rehabilitated by prison.
JOHN DEAN: They had also used the same Cuban Americans that were arrested in the Democratic National Committee. That was the link and track back to the White House that the White House was quite concerned about after the Watergate break-in.
AMY GOODMAN: These were veterans of the Bay of Pigs?
JOHN DEAN: They were veterans of the Bay of Pigs. Hunt had been an operational officer at the Bay of Pigs, and these were people he recruited. And after the bungled -- the second bungled burglary, if you will, where they were arrested, you know, caught red-handed, you didn't have to dig very far to find out that they had done other things and other illegal break-ins.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what was the President's reaction when you told him you were going to break ranks?
JOHN DEAN: I actually thought -- well, the first person I told I was going to break rank was John Ehrlichman. I said, “You know, what's going on is an obstruction of justice.” I hadn't been trained in the criminal law, but by then I had opened the criminal law books and realized we were really in a heap of trouble. Had I been trained in that area, my antenna may have quivered earlier. It didn't. But as soon as I did realize, I began telling my colleagues, I said, “You know, we’re in a heap of trouble, what we are doing.” And Ehrlichman's comment was, “John, there must be something putrid in the water you’re drinking out there in Alexandria, where you live.” They didn’t want to hear it. And finally, they said, “Why don't you start dealing with the President directly on this, because we want to get on with the second term.” So, I did.
And as soon as I got his confidence, I began telling him more and more just to get his reaction, and on one morning I realized I had to go in and just really lay it out, because Howard Hunt, one of the people who had been arrested or -- involved in the Watergate break-in, was demanding more money. And there was no money to pay these people. We didn't know how to do any of this. And I told him, I said, “This is going to go on forever and ever, and it’s going to cost who knows how much.” And he said to me, “Well, John, how much might it cost?” And I pulled what I thought then was a hefty number out of thin air, which is $1 million. He said, “John, that's no problem. I know where we can get $1 million.”
So, when I did break rank, one of the things I thought I would do, it wasn't a whistle blowing in the traditional sense. I thought that by coming forward I would force my colleagues to come forward and tell the truth. And Nixon might save himself, because it could only get worse, as it did get worse. In other words, it just escalated the cover-up after I broke rank. So it was somewhat naive that I thought these people would come forward. Instead, they just decided, well, we’ll make you the target of everything and try to lay it off on you. They just picked the wrong guy.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about the parallels you see today, but on the issue of your psychiatrist's office, Dan Ellsberg, what did you understand? When was it broken into? And did you know right away? Did your psychiatrist tell you?
DANIEL ELLSBERG: No, actually. He’s dead now. I had been in regular psychoanalysis with him back in 1968 and 1969, before I -- actually, during when I copied the Pentagon Papers, something he wasn’t very interested in. He was more interested in my childhood. I couldn’t get him interested.
But he understood right away when he went to his office, which was littered after the break-in and found my file taken. The one file taken out of his safe -- it wasn’t a safe; it was a filing cabinet -- and laid on top of it. He understood that basically -- I think, by the way, they wanted to signal to me that they had broken in and that they might have whatever I might have told the psychoanalyst, my dirty dreams or whatever I might want to conceal to keep me quiet about Nixon.
They were worried about documents I might have and might reveal about Nixon's current threats. They weren’t worried at all about what I had put out already. That was on the Democrats. Nixon loved that. In fact, he was saying, “Stuff on [inaudible], we’re going to leak it out. Now that they’re leaking, we’ll leak out the parts we want.” And on my trial, he was very interested in leaking. “Leak it out. Get it out in the press. Leak it out. Understand that?” All very clear, very selective attitude toward leaking.
But when it came to leaking stuff on him, he felt the way Bush feels now about people revealing the secret detention camps in the C.I.A.: gotta find those people and stop that. That's a current thing that refers to me. So, extra measures have to be taken. Or when Joe Wilson revealed that he had given the information, that the claims of Saddam's trying to get uranium from Niger had no basis, immediately Karl Rove and Libby and others, the Plumbers of this day, still are set out to stop Joe Wilson's leaks and to do that by revealing his wife's identity, undermining his credibility and so forth. So, they were committing crimes, just as the White House under Nixon had committed crimes to stop me from telling more information. Exactly parallel situation.
And those crimes, of course, brought Nixon down, thanks to Dean's revelation. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been known. And then to Alex Butterfield’s revealing in the White House the taping, another critical element. Even after John, I think Nixon might have survived. It was just your word against the President's. Now, in those days, people didn't know who to believe -- John Dean or the President? You were at some disadvantage.
JOHN DEAN: Actually, I was holding up well in the polls. It wasn’t bad having corroboration on the tapes.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: But the tapes, for getting him facing prison or impeachment. They would not have impeached him on your word alone.
JOHN DEAN: No.
DANIEL ELLSBERG: So then, the tapes, of course, bore out what John had been saying. From then on, really, people understood that when the President says one thing, and somebody else says, “No, that's not the way it happened, that's not the truth,” especially if they have documents, you shouldn’t go on the assumption that it’s the President who’s telling us the truth.
AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Dan Ellsberg and John Dean. We’ll be back with them in a minute.